What is Functional Training?
Functional strength training is an approach that focuses on training the body for optimal performance in daily tasks or athletic activities by training and targeting multiple muscle groups instead of isolating individual muscles.
Functional training focuses on building a body capable of doing real-life activities in real-life positions, not just lifting a certain amount of weight in an idealized posture created by a gym machine.
Functional training focuses on three planes of movement instead of just one, and incorporates stability, coordination, balance, and agility.
The “Four Pillars” are fundamental survival patterns of human movement and should be at the core of your strength training program. Let’s look at each one and offer some practical exercises that apply to each pillar...
The 4 Pillars of Human Movement:
1. Gait or Locomotion
This would include walking as its most basic form, to running and finally running with bounding or jumping. Most sports require not only various levels of running intensities but also changes in direction. This aspect is critical when designing a training program because many injuries occur as a result of not preparing for lateral and rotation changes of direction. Even pure runners can benefit from the addition of non-linear gait patterns to balance out their neuromuscular system. Ladder drills and cone drills traditionally used in team sports like football and soccer are fun and challenge the athlete to learn unfamiliar foot patterns. Cone drills generally emphasize rapid changes of direction, acceleration and deceleration. Running drills need to be multi-planar (forward, lateral, backwards, and rotations). These variations can help undo muscle imbalance tightness brought about by constant repetitive running in the forward direction.
2. Level Changes
Level changes are typically non-locomotive tasks that require lowering and raising the center of mass. Squatting, lunging, stepping, extending, climbing, and flexing are all level changes. These motions are important in both athletic events and day to day life. Bending and extending movements would include exercises like "good mornings" and deadlifts.
3. Push / Pull
In real life these are usually performed from the standing position, but in sports it is often necessary to do them from less traditional positions. It's best to have push/pull exercises from all sorts of positions to prepare you for any necessary motion. The easiest way to train these is by pairing a pushing exercise i.e. push-up, with a direct antagonistic movement, i.e. bodyweight row. Push/pull movements basically occur in three directions: overhead, horizontal, and low. Within the context of these positions you can use barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, cables, tubing, double arm, single arm, etc. Just remember to work the opposite action of the push or pull you choose.
This pillar is often a neglected movement pattern and yet the most important. The human body is actually meant to rotate, with many of our body's muscle fibers oriented in a diagonal or horizontal fashion. When muscles contract the force produced causes the body to twist. Any movement involving swinging, throwing, walking, or running can only take place with rotation. It’s important because this is how we produce force whether running, swimming, paddling, or swinging a club or racquet. Rotation is also often used to help generate force. Many functional training exercises incorporate rotation to prepare you for similar motions in life. Cables or tubing are a great way to work rotation patterns. The other side of producing force is reducing force. Injuries generally occur during force reduction so strength work should include movements that produce and reduce force.